Coniston Water, The Lake District, NW England

This article is authored and contributed by Dennis Whittaker a crewman on The National Trusts' Steam Yacht Gondola. The article and most photos are © Copyright Dennis Whittaker All Rights Reserved. Photos not owned by Dennis are used with permission.

A Steam Yacht GONDOLA carries tourists on the beautiful Coniston Water today, just as in the 1860’s, still powered by steam, generated by a coal fired boiler. The current GONDOLA, launched in 1980 is a complete rebuild of the original yacht commissioned by the Furness Railway Company and built by Jones & Quiggin of Liverpool, and rebuilt in 1978 by Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd, of Barrow-in-Furness for The National Trust who now own and operate GONDOLA.


Original 19th Century GONDOLA at Lake Bank Jetty


21st Century GONDOLA approaches Coniston Jetty


Technical data (1859)

Length        84 ftBeam        13 ft 6 inDraught    aft, 4 ft 6 in; forward, nilSpeed        10 – 12 mphWeight        42 tonsHull        Low Moor 3/16 in iron plates, flush-rivetedCost        1,000 Guineas (Current GONDOLA is insured for £1.3 million)Designed by Sir James Ramsden, Secretary and General Manager of the Furness Railway Company.


burchiello2In the late 1850’s the Furness Railway Company decided to enhance their tourism business by adding a boat plying Coniston Water to their portfolio.  The design produced by Sir James Ramsden was a combination of a Venetian ferry, the Burchiello (pronounced burr-key-ay-lo) and the English steam yacht. The picture shows Burchiello with a gondola alongside.

The result being a vessel described by the London Illustrated News of 1860: -“The vessel is the perfect combination of the Venetian gondola and the English steam yacht, having the elegance, comfort and speed of the latter, and the graceful lightness and quiet gliding motion of the former.”

The hull was built by Jones and Quiggin of Liverpool and transported to Coniston in 4 pieces by train and horse and cart and finally assembled and outfitted on the slipway at Coniston Hall on the north end of the western shore of Coniston Water.Named GONDOLA, (it can only be surmised that Burchiello was not used as the name as few would have heard of this vessel compared to the Venetian gondola), the vessel became a firm favourite with the Victorian and Edwardian tourists and locals alike.The GONDOLA plied her trade on Coniston Water from 1859 until finally withdrawn from service 1937.  A local businessman purchased her and in 1946 converted her into a houseboat which was moored at the southern end of the Lake.


GONDOLA as a house boat 1947 to 1963

Disaster occurred in the winter storms of 1963 when a gale broke GONDOLA’S moorings and she was blown aground. She became something of an eyesore, and the Local Authority issued a disposal order; scrapping looked imminent.


A Shadow of GONDOLA’S former glory, aground and an eyesore

Another local businessman rescued GONDOLA in the nick if time.  He used a digger to excavate a trench to submerge the hull in an attempt to reduce the rate of corrosion while he decided what to do with her. GONDOLA lay like this until the mid 1970’s.


GONDOLA submerged in an attempt to limit hull corrosion

By 1975 those who cared felt they could no longer stand idly by while GONDOLA died a lingering death.  Several were members of the National Trust’s Lake District staff. They researched her fascinating story and by the following year had conducted a rough survey to see what state she was in. They thought there might just be a chance of saving her, but the National Trust could not be committed to such an open-ended project.  It was left to the Trust’s local chief-of-staff, Tony Lord, and his small band of volunteers to go in with cement and crude bungs to plug the gaping holes in her sides, to pump her dry and to bring up the lake one still, clear morning in January.  They took her strapped to an 18-foot dory, and gently inched her to Coniston Hall, where she had been launched in 1859.


GONDOLA back at Coniston Hall for hull survey

The National Trust agreed to a pilot study to survey the hull and Vickers Shipbuilding and Engineering Ltd, shipyard at Barrow were contracted to undertake the work.  It was found that the hull and frames had experienced a 30% loss of thickness due corrosion.  It was also established that the rules of the then UK Department of Trade and Industry required a minimum hull thickness of ¼ of an inch for a passenger vessel of this size.  So even without the corrosion, GONDOLA’S original hull would not have been acceptable.The Shipyard proposed and the National Trust accepted, that the hull be transported to the shipyard in Barrow-in-Furness, again in 4 pieces, where it was used to provide the dimensions to manufacture a replacement hull, retaining the flowing lines of the original.  A small amount of non-structural material was salvaged, notably the gunwale angle iron, and used on the new hull.  The new hull is of an all welded construction.  The Trust realised the reconstruction was to big for a small group of volunteers, and the Shipyard was also contracted to design and build the superstructure, based on the original, as the original had decayed as a result of the years of exposure.At dawn on 3 September 1979, once again GONDOLA’S hull, again in four pieces commenced the torturous journey back to Coniston, this time to the slipway at Pier Cottage.  Here the four pieces were erected, faired and welded and the superstructure fitted.  The Shipyard trades persons then completed the outfit.


GONDOLA Re-Launched 25 March 1980

GONDOLA was re-launched on 25 March 1980, then the new engine and boiler were installed and the saloons were fitted out, with the inaugural voyage taking place on the 24 June 1980.  GONDOLA was once again carrying passengers on the beautiful Coniston Water, just as she was 120 years before, and still is today!

Boiler and Engine

Unfortunately there is little information with regard to the original boiler and engine.  During the renovation the original specifications of Lawrence and Co of Liverpool, who built the boiler and engine, were un-earthed in the London Science Museum.  They showed the boiler was copper, as was used on the Furness Railway locomotives, producing steam at a pressure of 80 psi.  The engine was a twin cylinder, “V” configuration, with 8 inch diameter cylinders with 12 inch stroke, positioned each side of the boiler and connected to a single crank on the main shaft.  The engine drove a 4-blade propeller and produced 14 horsepower, giving a cruising speed of about 10 knots.  Reverse was achieved by means of slipping eccentrics.  The engine room was located aft of the saloons, keeping what little noise there was from the passengers.In the 1930’s, in preparation for conversion to a houseboat, the boiler and engine were removed, the engine room becoming the galley and washhouse.The current engine is quite similar to the original being a twin “V” double acting, single expansion with 7 inch diameter piston and 8 inch stroke, and again using slipping eccentrics for reverse.  It drives a 40-inch diameter 3 bladed propeller, with a 42-inch pitch.  Recently experts from the Steam Boat Association measured the steam power that confirmed a similar power to the original.  As before the cylinders are located either side of the boiler.


Port Cylinder of the Engine.Cylinder top right and slipping eccentrics bottom leftdrain cocks and manifold in the centre

When it came to procure the new boiler, money was tight; the initial £100,000 cost for GONDOLA’S renovation had grown to £400,000 for a re-build.  The research, design and verification cost to provide a replica of the original boiler was out of the question.  The Ffestiniog Narrow Gauge Railway Company of North Wales came to the rescue and provided the National Trust with an existing narrow gauge locomotive boiler of their standard proven design.  This boiler is steel; coal fired, with 90 fire tubes, and can produce steam up to 150 psi.  Luckily for us, the boiler capacity well exceeds the engine requirements and is lightly loaded.  Feed water is drawn from the lake using one of two Penberthy injectors.  Boiler water chemistry is maintained by blowing-down twice daily, fortunately the Coniston Lake water is very soft.  This boiler has proved to be very reliable, with repairs limited to a couple of failed stay bars.  Annual insurance inspections are conducted and after 25 years service, the fire tubes remain good for many more years.


Boiler in the Engine Room

An Engineer’s Day

The GONDOLA requires a crew of three, Helm, Purser and Engineer, all who travel through stunning scenery to arrive at Pier Cottage for 0830 start.


The Drive To Work

The first task for the Engineer is to open up the Engine Room, remove the funnel cover and check the boiler conditions, water level being most critical.


Removing the Funnel Cover

Now to light up, having first removed the previous day’s ashes, about two half coal bags full.  The fire is lit using diesel soaked newspapers, wood, post point cuttings from the National Trust’s wood yard, and 4 to 5 shovels of coal, and of course a match or two.


Diesel Soaked Newspaper and Post Ends for Lighting the Furnace

By 0900 a steady roar from the furnace indicates all is well.Time to give the brasses a good polish, while the boiler warms up.About 0925 the pressure gauge should indicate about 20 psi, time for a blow-down.We use Lake water and maintain water quality by routine blowing-down, this has proved most successful and leaves very little mud to be removed from the boiler at the end of the season.First the two gauge glasses are blown-down to check the indicated water level is true and then the boiler blown-down until the water level is just visible in the gauge glasses.


Gauge Glasses

Now a check that the fire is going strong, and fill any holes.  With the now much lower water level the water warms up more quickly and steam pressure rises similarly.  While this is going on, a trip back to the workshop to fold and soak the next day’s newspapers and with the help of the helmsman or purser move 6/7 bags of coal down to the jetty and wash them down. This helps reduce the coal dust being deposited on the white paint work when the bunker is filled.By now the steam pressure should be about 80 psi and one of the two injectors can be used to fill the boiler, up to 95% of the gauge glass. Steam pressure should rise to about 100 psi and then the furnace door can be opened to stabilise the fire then while the Engineer can nip up to the office for a quick coffee or tea, all being well it is about 1015.Refreshed, it is back to the boat to oil around the engine and warm it through, before departure from Pier Cottage to Coniston Pier to pick-up the first of 5 cruises’ passengers.


Wick Fed Oilers on Main, Big-End and Eccentric Bearings

The Engineer also handles the stern ropes and once tied up at Coniston Pier, it is back down the engine room to check the steam pressure, inject water (this should hold any steam pressure rise, but if there is a fierce furnace, then the furnace door can be opened to avoid blowing the safety valves) and oil around the engine.  This is the regular routine when alongside at Coniston Pier, the exceptions being at lunchtime when instead of oiling the engine, the furnace is prepared for lunch break by “banking” the front of the fire box with 4 shovels of coal.


Furnace Banked for Lunch Break

Each cruise is about 45 minutes and the Engineer has a steady routine.  About 5 minutes out of Coniston 6 shovels of coal are fed into the boiler, this will be the main stoking of the trip.  As this catches the boiler pressure rises, bearing in mind the engine is controlled using rod gearing, by the helmsman.  As pressure approaches 140 psi it is time to inject water, check the furnace and fill any holes.Other routine tasks, listen to the engine, empty bilges, clean paintwork and most importantly talk with the passengers.  Lots of our passengers are steam enthusiasts and ask some pretty tricky questions and then there are the children who appreciate a basic explanation of how the boiler, engine and propeller work.We approach our only stop on the circuit, Brantwood House jetty (Home of the 19th century philosopher and economist John Ruskin.) time to stabilise the furnace ready to tie up the stern and help the purser rig the gangway and disembark and embark passengers.A 10-minute passage back to Coniston Pier, during which time the boiler is stabilised for the 10 – 15 minutes alongside.During the middle cruise the second boiler blow-down of the day is conducted.During the final cruise, the aim is to arrive at Coniston Pier with a full boiler, about 130 psi of steam pressure, and a small amount of fire in the furnace.  As we leave the Pier, we blow soot and tie up back at Pier Cottage.  Having raked the remnants of the fire to the front of the firebox, and shut down the valves it is time to fill the coal hopper with the 6 – 7 bags of coal, fit the funnel cover and secure the engine-room.


The last task of the day is to fill the Coal Hopper

The end of another enjoyable day as engineer of the Steam Yacht GONDOLA.


The National Trust for allowing the use of extracts from the “Gondola Souvenir Guide Book”.The GONDOLA’S crew, John, Paul and Peter, for their constructive comments on this narrative.For GONDOLA visitor information see This article authored and contributed by Dennis Whittaker and has been approved by the National Trust. The article and photos are © Copyright Dennis Whittaker All Rights Reserved.